Manure spreaders I once knew and other machines that have since rusted

Author Mychal Wilmes starts talking about spreading manure and takes a trip through history.

A manure spreader puller by horses.
This manure spreader is pulled by horses around the year 1910 in Minnesota.
Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society / <a href=";catirn=10736163&amp;return=q%3Dmanure%2520spreader">Harry Darius Ayer</a>

Always a fast learner, I was quick to learn never to spread manure with a strong wind at your back. A frozen chunk that smacks against the back is a painful lesson.

The subject came up recently at the bank, where I went to cash a check shortly after it opened for business. As perhaps the day’s first customer, bank officer Dan had plenty of time to talk. He had recently began cleaning his horse barn. Fields were firm when he started but following March rain and melting snow, they had softened.

Ruts made in an alfalfa field will cause wagons to bounce around all summer long.

Dan lamented that the small spreaders manufactured a few years back are getting extremely hard to find and the large modern ones are much too expensive. He recently attended an auction where a mid-sized spreader in good condition sold for $20,000. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when his spreader hauls its last load.

From experience, it never seemed as though we ever had a new spreader. My earliest recollection was using one that started life as a horse-drawn machine refigured to be pulled by a tractor.


To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

What followed in the other spreaders I knew were beaters filled with twine and broken aprons that went to the field accompanied by a pitchfork just in case.

Dad had faith in the Minnesota brand equipment line, which included spreaders, binders, dump rakes, mowers, grain binders, cultivators and twine produced by inmates at the state prison in Stillwater.

The Stillwater operation should not be likened to the prison farms that were operated in many states and still are in operation in some. Inmates in those farms handle livestock and work in fields. Prison officials say that inmates who work with animals are less likely to offend than others kept in institutions.

Unique in its role, Stillwater’s farm equipment production was authorized by the Legislature in 1907. Manufacturing slowly gained momentum, and by 1927 business boomed as the Minnesota line gained a strong reputation. In that year 600 prisoners produced 25 million pounds of twine.

Dad thought it the best twine available long before Brazilian twine hit the market. Grain and versatile hay wagons were well built, but by the 1970s the tide turned against prison-produced machinery.

Private manufacturers always thought competition from an inmate workforce was patently unfair. Others against the practice said inmates would benefit more by honing skills more valued outside of prison walls. The prison’s tools and equipment had become outdated, and profitability fell.

However, grain box and hay wagon production didn’t end until 2006.


Dan and I continued talking manure spreaders while the teller listened without commenting — though her expression suggested amazement that we could talk about something of so little in importance for so long.

I wanted, but didn’t, to continue our discussion by switching topics to the county poor farm that formerly existed in our county. In the 1920s and ‘30s the poor farm welcomed families and individuals in need to milk cows and do field and housework until they could get back on their collective feet.

The farm served as a short-term bridge to better days when they were financially secure to rent a farm or find a job. What the poor farm did, one resident said, was give hope for a return to a normal life.

Farming had been left behind during the prosperous 1920s and was hit with financial disaster when the Great Depression arrived in October 1929 when the stock market crashed. At the time, charity was the responsibility of churches and private do-gooders. Private charities were overwhelmed, what with unemployment hitting 25 percent.

Individuals who had lost it all depended on soup kitchens and sold fruit and pencils on big-city street corners. The federal government played only a minimal role until President Roosevelt launched a series of programs to provide work for able-bodied men and boys.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

What To Read Next
Get Local